2021-02-18 Mindfulness of Breathing (35) Unknotting
5:01PM Feb 18, 2021
I think it's fairly well known for many people that in the Buddhist view, one of the core sources of suffering has to do with clinging or craving. And that clinging is described in many ways. Sometimes it's simply that there's stickiness – a glue that keeps us attached to things. Sometimes it's called a knot. We're knotted up and things. It's sometimes called a fetter. In that translation, the Pali word literally means a knot – to be knotted up. And we say that colloquially, in English, "I was all knotted up in something."
An expression of that from a Japanese teacher that I really liked was the "fist in the heart" or the "fist in the mind." We're trying to open the fist of the heart. So it's not all fisted up, closed up, tightened up.
There are many languages for this – ways of talking about how we claim or crave. Part of the function of practice is to reveal the ways we cling, the ways we are knotted up. Sometimes it's pretty evident right away. Sometimes as we go further and further along in the practice, we start seeing aspects of being knotted up, being caught by things, in ways we didn't know at all. These are more subtle, or deeper somehow inside.
In some ways, the, the movement through the path of practice is a continual movement of encountering, and then releasing. Encountering and untying, all the different ways we are sticky with things. We hold on to, cling to, or resist things.
When we run into these things in ourselves, some people have an instinct to feel bad about themselves, or criticize themselves. It's also possible to see it as, "Oh, good. This is the path forward. Knowing these things is part of the path in how we go forward." That's one interpretation I have for why this practice of ānāpānasati is so simple in its explanation. It's not meant to avoid or not recognize that we're attached or clinging, or there are all these challenges as we kind of come along the way. It's not to avoid it. But it's offering us a very simple way of moving through it without making a big deal of it. They're not mentioned.
Rather than getting caught up in the stories, or the idea of me, myself, and mine in relationship to them – it is to be really, really simple. Of course those things are there. And then, how simple can we be – in a way that's genuine, beneficial, honest, healing, or freeing as we go through? I see the simplicity of the way the beginning of ānāpānasati works as a way of really addressing all this clinging – all the challenges, strong feelings, emotions we have. All the ways in which the mind gets knotted up, fisted up, caught up in things, and concerned with things. But without getting entangled with them even further.
So, just simply stay breathing through it all. Whatever is going on, breathe. I think I said this yesterday, that there's something about hanging in there with the rhythm of breathing. I call it sometimes the great lubricator. It keeps things lubricated, so they don't get too rusted up, squeaky, or frozen up.
Or it's a massage. We're massaging stuff. By staying with the gentle rhythm of breathing, it's a little bit easier for the mind not to get caught by something. Because if you are caught, you've lost touch with the breathing. But if you are in touch with the breathing, then there's something we're being with, which is kind of a lubricant, or a massage. The concerns, the feelings we have haven't gone away necessarily, but it's the knotted up, the stickiness, the preoccupation with them that's loosened up.
And then something else begins to happen if we free our concerns, our emotions, our challenges, even our suffering. We free them from our preoccupation, our resistance, the stories, the opinions, the predictions about it, what it means – our pushing it away, validating it, justifying it, or apologizing for it. All these complicated things we do perpetuate it somehow. If we just could learn to leave it alone, but without denying it. Just leave it alone; let it be there.
If we leave it alone from all this extra stuff, the heart knows how to heal. The mind knows how to unfold. In the same way, if you cut your finger with a kitchen knife, for example chopping vegetables, it's a complicated physiological process to heal that cut. But we don't have to worry about that. The body heals itself. All we have to do is keep the cut clean.
So, for much of the angst, suffering, challenges, and grief that we have – respect it deeply. And really respect it. Leave it alone, without stickiness, without clinging, without being knotted to it. And there's mindfulness of breathing. The implicit idea in this practice is that actually mindfulness of breathing allows us the freedom to leave things alone.
Then as the practice goes along, we feel the mental formations, and the bodily formations. Feeling the physical activity, expressions, manifestations of the mind – manifestations of responses, thoughts, or feelings – is such a powerful thing. It's a way of being present for the all the difficulties and joys of life, but being present for it physically – without the stickiness, without being for against the clinging.
It's a way to begin to loosen up the stickiness, just to feel in your body. The body is not a story. And so much of the stickiness has to do with the story-making mind – the opinions, ideas, predictions.
On top of that, the ānāpānasati says to relax, or make tranquil this body. For me, this idea of relaxing, calming the body is not really meant to avoid anything. But it's beginning to relax the ways in which we hold things – the way we hold on, or are knotted up. It's the knots we're letting go of. And as the knots get let go, the entanglements let go. Then what we're feeling inside – the challenges we have – can begin to move, resolve themselves, and relax. It can be a very different perspective.
Sometimes we don't solve our problems, but we dissolve them in this way. Some of the external problems we have in life, the real things that we have to take care of, don't go away this way. But we can put ourselves in a much better position – more creative, intelligent, wise, and loving – to address them when we go through this deep process of letting go of the stickiness, the craving we have.
I think it's a radical thing, this practice. It actually doesn't talk about these challenges directly, because we don't have to address them directly. If we do the steps of ānāpānasati, they just kind of get taken care of on the side. Or get taken care of because we're making space in releasing the stickiness, the knots we have.
That process continues into the second set of four instructions, where we become aware of the mental formations, the mental activities, the thoughts we have. And then we calm those down. Calming means to let go of the stickiness. Let go of the tightness, the constrictions, the pressure that's there. It can't be done all at once, all of it. But beginning this process of letting go the stickiness, of settling the mind. This also is not to avoid the mental problems, but to let go of the stickiness, the fetters that are there.
To repeat myself, I think it's a radical thing that ānāpānasati does not address directly the challenges we have in practice. But it's not because they're being ignored. I would like to propose that it's because it's offering a very realistic and effective process by which they can be resolved or dissolved. We can find our way with them without having to address them directly. The mind wants to do that. The heart wants to do that.
So, as you practice, when you find yourself with these challenges, know that the practice is a response to it, has ways of addressing it. And perhaps being content, and willing to do so indirectly. For some of us, it's a radical thing to not feel like we have to fix and address everything directly. But we can just relax, settle back, and trust the process as we go move along on this path.
Thank you, and I look forward to being with you again tomorrow.